As I drove through the parking lot at Willow Grove Park Mall this Christmas Eve, I saw crazed drivers executing Nascar-like stunt maneuvers as they vied for parking spaces. I watched frantic shoppers sprint through traffic with heavy bags. I saw mall security and police. I sympathized with frustrated parents. I listened to crying children. And just as I thought the manic mood would overtake me, someone shouted, “Merry Christmas!”

Merry Christmas, indeed. And while we’re at it, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year, and happy day. Whatever it is you celebrate, I wish you joy and happiness, because in the midst of the hustle that the holiday season has become, it’s easy to lose one’s joy.

With aggravated drivers making obscene gestures, rude shoppers pushing in the aisles, and temporary store clerks who haven’t grasped the nuances of customer service, it’s easy to be frustrated, angry, and ungrateful. But as I look back on the events (and non-events) of 2012, I’ve come to the conclusion that Philadelphia has much to be grateful for, and I’d like to recount it here.

Hurricane Sandy

Weather reporters routinely called it a super storm, and I wondered if the coverage was meant to frighten viewers and make us tune in around-the-clock . If so, it worked. My family was riveted, because we understood what storms could do. I’d stayed up all night through Hurricane Irene, running a pump and ferrying buckets of water to keep my basement from flooding. If this was a super storm, would I be able to keep up? Would the power go out? Would our entire home be flooded?

My wife bought hundreds of bottles of water and non-perishable foods. She checked and re-checked the batteries in the flashlights and transistor radio. I made sure our laptops were fully charged in case the power went out. Then something miraculous happened.

Though Philadelphia experienced some property damage, power outages and fallen trees, we escaped the kind of devastation that befell New Jersey, Manhattan, and Long Island, New York. Indeed, Philadelphia weathered the storm, and did so with its characteristic grit. For that, I will always be grateful.

The Connecticut Shootings

There’s not much more to say about the tragedy in Newtown, CT, where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But there’s still time to turn our attention to Philadelphia’s schools.

To be sure, our schools face a difficult future. Financial resources are stretched to the breaking point. Academic performance is improving too slowly for most, and the proposed closure of 37 Philadelphia schools has sparked mass protests among parents and activists.

Mention the schools to many Philadelphians, and the reaction is swift, negative, and angry. But as the parent of a Philadelphia public school student, I would only say this: we still have children to send to school. I can think of at least 20 sets of parents who’d be grateful to have that chance.

I know there are serious issues in Philadelphia’s public schools, but having worked with students and parents in our schools for a number of years, I also know there is hope. I see it in the eyes of students who want to learn, in the actions of parents who want the best for their children, and in the hearts of teachers who truly care about the students. Those things let me know that if we work together, there are better days ahead. For that, I’m truly grateful.

Not the End of the World

The world did not end on December 21, despite dire predictions to the contrary. This means we still have time to respond to the problems that face us, and to recount the blessings that surround us. Yes, the pending closure of dozens of Philadelphia schools could create problems for decades to come. Yes, the violence in our streets must stop, and it must stop now.

But as the jammed parking lots at shopping malls so deftly illustrate, we still have much to give. Just for this season, even in the midst of all our problems, let’s take a moment to reflect and be grateful for all that we have.

Merry Christmas, indeed. I’m thankful I’m still here to say it.